Lack of Standardization Stalls Media Decarbonization Efforts

A flurry of agencies and ad-tech firms are announcing carbon measurement and reduction goals

Agencies and ad-tech vendors are working to clean up the media supply chain—environmentally speaking. But real progress will be slow without common agreed-upon measurements.

Last week, WPP’s GroupM announced an updated version of its carbon calculator, based on the media decarbonization methodology released last July. It lets agencies estimate the carbon emissions of a client’s campaign based on the breakdown of the media buy, using channel-level emissions data.

While GroupM is a leader in this space, making its methodology available industrywide, it’s not the only player working to measure and rein in the carbon emissions associated with its products.

Over the last few months, ad-tech platforms like GumGum, Brand Advance and Teads have also made moves to measure, reduce and offset carbon emissions, while OpenX reached net zero emissions following office closures and a transition to Google Cloud Platform. Media agencies like Assembly have also announced reduction plans, following in the footsteps of GroupM and Dentsu—both of which have their own methodologies for measuring the impact of media buys for their clients.

Getting to an industrywide measurement of media’s climate impact would help marketers compare different platform and agency offerings on the same scale. But with standardization still months—if not years—away, marketers are forced to navigate the murky waters of an industry in transition. Amid that murkiness, industry experts advise marketers to continue pushing for better measurement tools, support industrywide collaboration and to be wary of decarbonization plans that lean heavily on offsets.

Measuring beyond ad-tech ops

Along with its updated carbon calculator, GroupM announced a partnership with sustainability-focused ad-tech company Scope3. That partnership will let GroupM build vendor-specific programmatic data into the calculator, offering more granular insights to clients.

Contextual ad-tech firm GumGum announced earlier this month that it’s working with carbon accounting platform Cedara—chosen because it offered the option to measure the footprint of the entire company, not just its ad-tech operations—to measure, reduce and report its emissions.

“The internet is making up 4% of overall emissions and continuing to grow at more than double [the rate of the] airline industry,” Adam Schenkel, evp of global platform strategy and operations at GumGum, told Adweek, adding that the impetus for carbon measurement initially came from its clients’ requests to curb the climate impacts of the media they buy.

Finding an external arbitrator

As tech vendors and agencies announce different measurement partners, methodologies and tools—plus agencies like Dentsu and GroupM have been investing in their own carbon measurement tools for years—it’s increasingly difficult for marketers to understand which of those methodologies are truly meeting their needs.

Measuring emissions from media is a complex game, and it’s hard to equate metrics from one channel to another in a way that can inform buyers aiming to build a lower-carbon media plan.

While offsets play a role in progress toward achieving net zero, this area is still really the Wild West.

Kieley Taylor, global head of partnerships and managing partner, GroupM

Advocates for standardization reasonably argue that real industrywide progress on media decarbonization will be nearly impossible to measure or achieve without a standardized measurement process.

“Getting this industry to agree on a baseline methodology is the first step,” Alison Pepper, evp of government relations at the 4A’s, told Adweek in December. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”

To wrangle the relevant players, many are looking to Ad Net Zero, the industrywide initiative to reduce the carbon impact of the ad industry—of which both GroupM and Dentsu are members. In October, Ad Net Zero formed a working group on media decarbonization to begin these talks.

“We’re reaching that critical point where we’re going to need someone to wade in and sort it out,” said Matt Green, director of global media services at the World Federation of Advertisers. “Ad Net Zero will hopefully be well positioned to do that.”

Reduction first, offsets last

Until there is a standardized methodology, experts largely agree on one rule of thumb: Cutting emissions must come first, with high-quality offsets used only after all other decarbonization avenues have been exhausted.

“Our philosophy is reduction first,” Kieley Taylor, global head of partnerships and managing partner at GroupM. “And, while offsets play a role in progress toward achieving net zero, this area is still really the Wild West, so due diligence is critical to ascertain good actors with good impact.”

At the same time, experts note that with so much to be done, it’s also important to start. Pepper warned that measurement itself can’t be the goal of standardization efforts—the industry must stay focused on the end goal of reducing climate impact.

“The measurement work that we’re doing is really, really important, but the most important piece is the active decarbonization,” said Fiona Lloyd, global client and brand president at Carat and executive sponsor of social impact for media at Dentsu. “It’s understanding where the hotspots are within the ecosystem, and working with the partners to actively decarbonize.”